Sunday, May 10, 2009

To Texas With Love

©2009 by LeeZard

It was an odd convergence at the wedding held under the pecan trees on the Scarlett Roan Ranch just south of Cleburne, TX. The groom – and owner of the ranch – was Steve Stevens, Jr., a former Professional Rodeo Cowboy Association saddle bronc rider born in “The Valley” that is suburban Los Angeles.

His Best Man was Kenny Call, a former World Champion steer roper and 12-time National Finals Qualifier, an honored guest legendary Cowboy Hall-of-Famer Larry Mahan and, the unexpected guest (Your Humble Servant), a New York City refugee with a cowboy heart. I was there as my sweetie Wende’s escort and, as is often the case, an observer of life.

Steve Stevens, Jr., was born in Los Angeles and naturally followed his father’s footsteps into the movie industry. But rodeo also runs through his veins.

“Dad” is Steve Stevens, Sr. After successful careers in acting, as an actor’s agent, a casting director for Screen Gems and a published author, Los Angeles-based Steve, Sr. (born in Brooklyn, NY) decided at age 50 to become a team roper on the rodeo circuit. Over the course of those careers, Steve, Sr. met (1978) World Champion steer roper – and character actor – Kenny Call and quickly became his agent.

Even though he was finding some success in the rough and tumble world of Hollywood Jr., as the family calls him, could always ride. In fact, the combination of riding and acting helped him land TV commercials when special horseback riding was needed. But, Steve really wanted to ride so he asked another of his dad’s clients, six-time All-Around World Champion Larry Mahan, to help him into the rodeo circuit as a saddle bronc rider.

After several summers at the Mahan ranch mucking stalls and getting on colts, Jr. and Larry both felt he was ready to go after his permit as a professional rodeo cowboy. Steve Stevens, Jr. had found his true path.

Enter Kenny Call, by that time retired from rodeo. Call, as a friend and client of Steve, Sr., took the younger Stevens under his wing and introduced him to many of the rodeo circuit’s old-timers. You must understand, however, that “retired” is misleading. To this day, few can match him in Jackpot Roping, as Call would prove again that wedding night (see sidebar below for details).

Fast-forward to 2008. After five-years of training horses in California’s San Fernando Valley, Jr. had established himself as a colt starter and a gifted trainer of troubled-horses. Steve and his fiancĂ©, actress Amanda Paytas, decided to give up their life in California and follow a long-held dream to start a horse-training ranch in Texas. They found it in 12-acres near Cleburne (pop. 30,072) a little over an hour’s drive south of Ft. Worth. Jr. was familiar with Cleburne, having rodeo’d there many times over the years.

Amanda is an even more unlikely Texas rancher. Born in Scottsdale, AZ and raised in Southern California, she had never ridden a horse until she and Steve started dating. By the time they were married on that warm windy spring afternoon, Amanda was riding like she was born to the saddle and working side-by-side with her husband to build the Scarlett Roan Ranch into something special.

And, it looks like they are succeeding. Steve Stevens, Jr. specializes in breaking horses for clients from around the country, from thoroughbreds to quarter horses and everything in-between. In fact, according to Kenny Call, “Steve can ride anything. He’ll break horses nobody else wants to ride. Hell, he’ll get on horses I don’t want to ride.”

“I can ride ‘em but, I don’t want to,” Call adds with a chuckle.

Call and I were sitting on the ranch house porch a couple of days before the wedding getting better acquainted. No easy task unless and until you are accepted by this ultimate cowboy. I apparently passed the “test” the night before.

It was bring-in-the-barbecue night for all the early-arriving guests and it was a full house. I loaded my plate with a pile of The Red Chew Chew’s succulent brisket (The best in Cleburne!), freshly cut cole slaw and jalapeno-baked beans and headed for an empty seat at the tiny dining room table. I’d only been introduced to Kenny a few moments earlier and politely asked, “Mind if I join you?”

Without missing a chew, or looking up, Kenny drawled, “Think yer tough enough?”

Settling onto the empty stool, I replied, “I guess we’re about to find out.” That was all it took; Kenny and I spent the rest of the wedding week trading barbs and gentle insults – something Kenny only does with those he takes a shine to. Over those few days I took a real shine myself to the ol’ curmudgeon. Kenny’s barbs are sharp but they are never mean. I suspect under the grizzled cowboy exterior is a heart of gold and, if you listen between the lines, there’s a whole lot of wisdom and knowledge – about horses, cowboyin’ and life.

“You’re lucky,” Stevie whispered later. “If he REALLY likes you, he’ll start pulling pranks. I can’t count the times Kenny has had me arrested.”

Steve, Sr. adds, “Kenny Call is up there with the greatest rodeo prankster of them all, the great Casey Tibbs.”

Over the next few days the rest of the guests began filtering in and they reflected the varied, quirky backgrounds of their hosts. There were aspiring Hollywood starlets (Do they still call them that?), various siblings, a generous helping of neighbors, childhood buddies and the bride’s best girlfriends. Despite the variety, everyone fell into feelings of celebration, joy and impromptu camaraderie and, we all pitched in.

In the 48-hours before the ceremony a couple of folks finished installing insulation, wallboards and power in the bunkhouse. City slickers helped feed the horses and shovel out the barn. With an overactive Jones for music and an iPod holding over 2,000 songs, I volunteered to put together the soundtrack for the ceremony and some back-up tunes (when the guitar/vocal duet took breaks) for the party afterwards.

Everyone seemed aware of a magical feeling to the whole thing, an aura underscored by an “omen” discovered by Stevie a few days earlier. He was digging around outside the house and pulled a fair-sized rock out of the dirt. He was going to use it to prop something up but, when he turned it over, there was another rock embedded in the larger one, shaped like a heart! The rock now sits leaning against the outside kitchen window. To Texas with Love, indeed!

The wedding day dawned sunny and cool with a brisk breeze out of the south. The ceremony was set for 2 P.M. and everyone scrambled to finish their respective chores; horses to feed, barn to clean, direction signs put out on the highway and the usual bustle of last minute preparations.

Bales of hay decorated with ribbons were set out for “pews” in the impromptu outdoor chapel. Two proud old pecan trees provided a beautiful green canopy and some shade as the sun fought the wind to warm the air.

Shortly after noon, the guests started trickling in, dressed in their cowboy and cowgirl finest, and the caterers began setting up (The Red Chew Chew again. YUM!). Steve’s groomsmen, dressed in black, could've passed for a group of Texas Rangers, while Amanda's bridesmaids in their shiny blue dresses and gold boots were simply beautiful.

I wandered around, taking it all in. For a cowboy wannabe who grew up surrounded by the Big Apple’s concrete and skyscrapers, it was a dream come true.

It was at this point Steve Sr. introduced me to Larry Mahan. If you’re not a fan or, if you are reading this on Mars, Mahan is to rodeo what Elvis is to Rock & Roll. I love ‘em both and I was just short of star-struck.

Without appearing too goofy, I asked Steve to take my picture with Mahan and Kenny Call. Both were very gracious, although I knew Kenny would razz me later.

The ceremony was everything it should be. The breeze softened and the sun warmed. The bride and groom glowed with their love for each other as the horses neighed and whinnied their approval in the background.

After the ceremony, a young duo set up with guitar and mouth harp and worked their way through some fine acoustic country and pop. Other than the traditional “first dance” and father-daughter dance, there was more “just visiting” than partying, everyone still basking in the comfortable and peaceful aura that permeated the whole week.

Someone saddled up a young paint in the corral and started giving the younger buckaroos rides around the ring.

After awhile, the new Amanda Stevens climbed up on one of her favorite horses, Snowflake, who happened to match her long white wedding gown. With her gown trailing in the breeze, Amanda took Snowflake on a few turns around the corral as if to say, “I married more than the man; we’ve embraced each others’ lives and I am home.



Ride ‘Em Cowboy
I didn’t find out until that evening that Larry Mahan drove up with a horse trailer hitched to the back of his truck. He and Kenny Call were going to join the celebrity team roping competition that night at the Cowboys for Kids Rodeo in nearby Cleburne. I’d seen signs for the rodeo all over town but wasn’t really sure what it was all about.

I learned from their Web site that Cowboys for Kids raises funds for disadvantaged children, handicapped children, children suffering from illness and all children in need.” The non-profit charity “strives to give children and their families a chance to build a positive future for themselves and others.” The cause is near and dear to the Stevens Family and their friends.

I found out the next morning that Kenny Call was unexpectedly pulled from the audience because one of the team-ropers was a no-show. He finished second in the competition. As I said before, watch out for this “retired” World Champion.

You can be sure I gave Call an earful about “losing.”

City Slicker Turns Cat Rustler
Two nights before the wedding I found “Tex.” Or, should I say Tex found me.

We were sitting on the porch at the ranch, savoring some of that Red Chew Chew brisket when this black-and-white striped bob-tailed kitten showed up out of the evening dusk. He looked around cautiously and started to leave when my sweetie Wende held out a piece of brisket in front of nose. Before you could say “Yippee kyo tyay,” he was in my lap purring up a storm.

Amanda said, “He must be a stray.” Wende and I, with four dogs and two cats between us, looked at each other and agreed telepathically, “Let’s take him back to the hotel and see what happens.”

On the ride back to town we stopped to pick up some interim kitten supplies. While I waited outside in the rental car, something happened. I’m not sure how or why but “Tex,” as I’d started calling him, decided I belonged to him. He sat and purred in my lap the rest of the ride and, once in the room, purring all the time, would not leave my side. “We are taking this little guy home,” I declared.

Always the voice of reason, Wende advised, “Let’s see if anyone shows up at the ranch to claim him.”

Sure enough, the next morning a neighbor from across the highway appeared at the ranch asking if anyone had seen her kitten. Reluctantly, we ‘fessed up. So, Wende – because I couldn’t bring myself to do it – carried Tex across the road to his real owner.

Tagging along, however, and shedding more and more tears with each step was Wende’s nine-year old daughter Sarah. It’s not that we purposely played the crying child card but the weepy one did the trick. Tex’s owner relented and what was once potential coyote fodder is now a very contented house kitten in Kent, WA.